Magpies face test of skill and courage

Newcastle take on more than just 11 men tonight. Glenn Moore reports from Zagreb

It looked a case of premature celebration when small bottles of champagne were served with lunch on Newcastle's flight to Croatia yesterday, but most of the players, anxious neither to tempt fate nor Kenny Dalglish's ire, quickly handed them back.

Tonight those players will need the clearest of heads as they take on Croatia Zagreb in the intimidating Maksimir stadium. It was not recent Balkan history which made the ground tingle when Zagreb defeated Partizan Belgrade in the last round, it was the tumult of passion for any major game. There may not always be the hatred present against Partizan, but Zagreb were still banned from Europe two seasons ago after crowd trouble in a tie against Auxerre.

The local mood has been further inflamed by the nature of Newcastle's first-leg win in this European Cup preliminary round tie - John Beresford's contested second goal, allowed after an illegal challenge on the goalkeeper by Faustino Asprilla, has been repeatedly shown on television.

That goal gave Newcastle a fortuitous 2-1 win after they were outplayed for long periods at St James' Park. They thus need a draw, or a high-scoring narrow defeat, to progress to the lucrative Champions'-and wealthy-countries'- runners-up League. Defeat carries the consolation prize of a place in the Uefa Cup.

"We have given ourselves a chance," Kenny Dalglish, the Newcastle manager, said yesterday. "They are a very good side, better than Monaco [who convincingly knocked Newcastle out of Europe last season]. But we are not a bad side ourselves - though to read what they are supposed to have said in the papers we are only going there to make up the numbers."

Dalglish was referring to reported comments from Zlatko Canjuga, Zagreb's club president, who said: "Newcastle will be frightened when they are confronted by our fans. We have no worries about this match at all. We will win 3-0 - as a team Newcastle are a bunch of losers."

Since this is just the stuff to pass around the dressing-room to provide that extra bit of motivation, Dalglish will be unworried by such comments. Stopping Robert Prosinecki, a 1991 European Cup winner with Red Star Belgrade, and Silvio Maric, who is destined for Milan, running the game as they did on Tyneside is more his concern.

Robert Lee and David Batty will be detailed to watch those two, while Newcastle's only major doubt is over whether to play Jon Dahl Tomasson behind Asprilla, or Keith Gillespie in a wide role, or Warren Barton in a defensive one.

The obvious temptation is to play Barton, but the pressure on the defence may find more relief if Asprilla, who is not the best at holding the ball, is supported by Tomasson. The Colombian remains a key figure as Newcastle need a goal - it is difficult to see them keeping a clean sheet.

Other strong performances are required from Stuart Pearce, whose experience will be important early on, and Shay Given, who has been signed for nights like this.

In front of him, the defence needs to keep a closer watch on a prolific Igor Cvitanovic, a former Middlesbrough target and the scorer of 99 league goals in six years plus Croatia's first leg strike.

Dalglish said: "I keep hearing they will bombard us in the opening 20 minutes. That doesn't worry me as much as how they organise their side for the game."

There were a few hopeful signs for Newcastle at the weekend. While they were winning their third game of the season, Zagreb were losing at their leading rivals, Hajduk Split. Moreoever, their coach, Marijan Vlak, did not travel to the game because of a back injury and is being pressured to stand down in favour of the controversial national coach, Miroslav Blazevic, until he recovers.

Nor have Zagreb done well in Europe since Croatian clubs have been allowed to compete under their own flag. In three campaigns, they have only defeated teams from the Faroe Isles and Albania.

However, unlike Newcastle, they are at least champions of their own country, having done the double for the last two seasons. They are also the only Croatian side to have lifted a European trophy, winning the Fairs' Cup in 1967, two years before Newcastle did, by beating Leeds.

They were than called Dinamo Zagreb and represented the old Yugoslavia. As standard bearers for their new country, they will be formidable opponents, their technical ability bolstered by a distinct pride.

When, at the end of ITV's coverage of the first match, Bob Wilson turned to Terry Venables and asked: "Do you think they [Newcastle] can do it over there?" the old smoothie had to summon all his media skills to avoid saying an outright `no.'

"It will be very difficult for them, and a very good achievement if they win," was the gist of his reply. Little has happened since to alter that view.

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